Today, I present you with a post with a difference.
A friend of mine was kind enough to send this to me after this was posted in a
genealogical list. I enjoyed reading this account and thought you would also.
I present this as it was sent to me.
I post it here with the kind permission of
Mr. Michael Purcell
Guest Author for today.
*The Cursed Famine*
*By Mr Michael Purcell - July 2006*
*The scene outside Mangans Mills in Coal Market, Carlow c1846*
*The Cursed Famine*
In June 1845, a potato fungal disease, Phytophthora infestans, which the
Irish people later referred to as 'the blight', had spread from South America
(where, ironically, the potato itself originated circa 1560) was reported in Belgium.
The report was to have catastrophic consequences for Ireland.
As far back as 1835 warnings that the Irish population had become
over dependant on the potato as a source of nutrition had gone unheeded. It
was estimated that the average pre-famine adult consumed 12-14 pounds of
potatoes a day.
This dependence, combined with the landlord, commercial and political
systems, which operated at the time, was to transform another Irish famine
(over a period of 600 years up to thirty severe famines were recorded in
Ireland and Europe) into The Great Famine of Irish history (An Gorta Mor).
In the following six years, 1845-'51 Ireland lost over two million of her
people to starvation, disease and emigration. Large numbers emigrated to the
United States, Australia, Canada, New Zealand and Britain. Most of them were
never to return to the land of their birth.
For generations to come, the Famine was to have a profound effect on the
religious, cultural, political, economic and social development of Ireland.
During the Famine, grain was exported, tenants were evicted and people were
deported for the most trivial crimes. In 1849, when emigration, eviction,
disease and mortality were higher in many parts of the country than at any
other time during the Famine Queen Victoria visited Ireland and was to
record that she had never seen a more good humoured crowd, "the women are
really handsome, even in the lower class." Is it any wonder that for
generations afterwards the popular nationalist view was that "God sent the
potato blight but the English caused the Famine". And despite the fact that
the Queen personally donated £5,000 (a very substantial sum in those days)
and became involved in many charities providing relief she was to become
known to the Irish as "The Famine Queen". Combined with the fact that "The
Great Famine" was followed by "The Great Silence", led in to various
interpretations of the facts in the years that followed.
During the past few years, especially in the build-up to the 150th
anniversary of the Famine in 1995, many national and local historians have
been objectively researching the gap between the factual history and the
traditions of the period. A National Famine Commemoration Committee was
established to carry out a micro-study of Poor Law Union areas.
Local historians of the calibre of Ted Brophy, Seamus Murphy, R. V Comerford
and Frank Taaffe produced papers, and school projects got under way. A very
successful commemorative exhibition organised by Teagasc in conjunction with
the Department of Agriculture was mounted in the RDS grounds in Dublin,
while the community library in Athy mounted an exhibition of artefacts
relating to the Famine in Kildare.
The academics tell us that it is the local historians who hold the key that
will unravel the real history and suffering of the Famine period. With this
in mind I add the results of my own research gleamed from sources relating
to counties Carlow, Kildare and Laois.
The great silence that I referred to earlier came about partly because of
the shortage of academic historians capable of producing an authoritative
account of the period but many believe that this " silence" ensued mainly
because there was the survivors' guilt of those who not only escaped with
their lives but were left in better circumstances as a result of the Famine,
for there were winners as well as losers during and after the terrible
events of 1845 - 1851. A decisive minority of people including the
"grabbers" and "gombeen men," did well out of the Famine and it was their
successors who became, so to speak, the "shakers and movers," of the
commercial life of Ireland in the following decades. For instance in County
Carlow before the Famine there were over 4,000 small farm holdings of
between one and 15 acres - after the Famine there were just over 2,000 small
farm holdings of that acreage in the county.
The unanswered question was, who divided out the land, who lost and who
gained. One has only to look at the small hovel-like pre-famine buildings
dotted around the countryside that passed for homes compared to the fine
post-famine buildings that emerged on the Irish landscape following the
Famine to grasp this aspect of the outcome.
With the publication in 1956 of Prof. Edward's and William's academic
volume" The Great Famine" the silence was broken. Incidentally two Carlow
men T. P. O'Neill, MA, and Oliver MacDonagh, MA, Ph.D., were among the first
to contribute to this scholarly volume. Their MA thesis became the
celebrated chapters: T. P. O'Neill on the Organisation and Administration of
Relief, 1845-'52 and Oliver MacDonagh on "Irish emigration to the USA and
the British Colonies during the Famine".
T. P. O'Neill also wrote an article "The Famine in Carlow" which was
published in the 1947 edition of Carloviana, the journal of the Old Carlow
In his book " Realities of Irish Life" William Stewart Trench, agent to Lord
Lansdowne of Luggacurren eviction infamy, referring to his land in Cardtown,
County Laois, then known as Queens County, wrote in his diary on August
6,1846: "I shall not readily forget the day, I rode up, as usual, to my
mountain property and my feelings may be imagined when, before I saw the
crop, I smelt the fearful stench, now so well known and recognised as the
death sign of each field of potatoes. I was dismayed, indeed, but I rode on.
As I rode down the newly engineered road, running through the heart of the
farm, I could scarcely bear the fearful and strange smell, which came up so
rank from the luxuriant crop then growing all around; no perceptive change,
except the smell, had yet come upon the apparent prosperity of the
deceitfully luxuriant stalks, but the experience of the past few days taught
me that all was gone and the crop was utterly worthless".
*The Catholic Church*
The Bishop of Kildare and Leighlin, Francis Haly wrote in January 1847 " no
imagination can conceive, no pen can describe it. To have anything
approaching a correct idea of the suffering of the poor, you should be here
on the spot and see them with your own eyes!" and he added, "in one of the
Dublin workhouses it appears the deaths were 50 a week, so crowded were the
Father Maher was another R.C. priest that expressed his anger at how little
was being done to relieve distress and denounced the 16 ounces of food doled
out to the poor in Carlow Workhouse. Many priests and religious orders
played a part in relieving the conditions of the people, but the Hierarchy
seem to have been as concerned with political events (the build up to the
failed Rising of 1848 for instance) and other church matters such as the
vexed question of the "soupers" and the role and motives of other churches
including the Quakers which diminished the role of the Hierarchy in the
memory of the succeeding generations of Irish people.
But it is the Society of Friends (Quakers) who were remembered most fondly
by the people for their practical sleeves-rolled-up, no-strings-attached
assistance at this time.
*The Worst Effects*
The blight had reached Ireland in August 1845. Its late arrival, when most
of the crop was already saved, meant that the worst effects were not felt in
that year. It was in 1846 that nearly the entire potato crop was wiped out.
In Carlow it was estimated that half of the crop was destroyed, by December
it was reported that no potatoes were available. In Ballymurphy it was
claimed that people were actually starving. Relief committees were organised
and gave assistance in Myshall, Grangeford, Nurney, Clonegal, Kellistown,
Tinryland, Old Leighlin, Barragh, Borris, Ballon, Rathoe, Rathvilly, Tullow,
Ballyellin, Ballymurphy, Bagenalstown, Clonmore, St.Mullins and Fenagh.
In November 1846, cooked food was distributed to the destitute by the
Society of Friends (Quakers) in Carlow town and county. There were
complaints that some people who were not destitute were receiving relief.
Seven large boilers in which to cook stirabout soup were distributed in
Carlow, one to Mangan's Mills of Coal Market in the town of Carlow (the
boiler exists to this day. see note at end of this article). In it was
cooked yellow meal and rice and also turnip parings and dripping fat.
In 1973 the late Miss Kathy Mangan, when she was in her 90th year, told me
that her aunt Johanna Mangan had told her that people would stand in line in
the Coal Market carrying a pot or a bowl to place food in. They had to eat
the contents there and then so as to make sure it would not be swapped or
traded for tobacco or alcohol by some of the more roguish element of the
destitute. They also had a security man posted to make sure that none of the
employed labourers would avail of the relief. Stirabout was also distributed
from the Presentation school in Tullow Street.
In Kildare during November 1846, the threat of raids on provision boats
along the Grand Canal led to a contingent of 23 constabulary being assembled
to protect the fleet. On the night of January 19, 1847, a food boat was
attacked by a large body of men in the Bog of Allen and robbed of "several
packages of tobacco, eggs and whiskey". Frank Taaffe in a paper presented to
Kildare County Library, tells us that "Kildare, with 85 per cent of its area
classified as arable land, had the smallest area given over to potato
growing of all the Irish counties, also the building of the GSWR railway
line gave much employment in the area during 1845 and up to August, 1846,"
so at least for this period there was no great distress recorded in Kildare.
Nevertheless, the number of inmates in Athy Workhouse, which was opened in
1844 to accommodate 360 adults and 240 children, reached 737 by December
1846. There were three workhouses in Co. Kildare - at Athy, Celbridge and
Naas. In 1847, the Naas Workhouse admitted 1,381 people.
The Carlow Workhouse, opened in November 1844 to accommodate 800 inmates, was
inhabited in December 1847 by over 1,400 destitute. In the following year
there were over 1,500 inmates recorded in the workhouse. It catered for most
of the county and for Slievemargy in the county of Laois, (then known as
Queens County). Workhouses in Baltinglass, Shillelagh and New Ross provided
for the eastern and southern sections of county Carlow.
The diet for Carlow Workhouse in 1847 consisted of eight ounces of oatmeal
with a pint of mixed milk for breakfast and for dinner, one pound of brown
bread with a pint of buttermilk. In fact at this time the prisoners held in
the jail in Carlow town were better fed than the workhouse inmates. In the
jail prisoners received: one pound of brown bread and a pint of sweet milk
for breakfast and for dinner eight ounces of oatmeal stirabout and a pint of
buttermilk. (on Sundays two pounds of brown bread and two pints of milk were
served for dinner!).
Besides the mass emigration that was prevalent during the Famine there was
emigration schemes assisted by the landlords who had figured that it was
much cheaper to be rid of the destitute than to maintain the unfortunates in
Over the years many of the workhouse officers were dismissed for
"irregularities" which did not make the enforcement of this detested system
any easier for the administrators or the inmates but nevertheless there were
many good officers and Masters and Matrons during this sad time.
An odd ray of sunshine was allowed into the workhouse to dispel the gloom,
when the danger of cholera was present the inmates were encouraged to
dance to keep up their spirits.
The workhouse also had an itch ward where those afflicted with "the itch"
were kept and wherein they could scratch each other to shreds, not to
mention the ward for the insane.
*Relief Works or the Workhouse*
To provide labourers with money and assistance the government set up relief
committees throughout the country they in turn were to organise relief
works / schemes in various Grand Jury districts. Ten committees were established
for Carlow but only five qualified for government aid, they were Tullow,
Bagenalstown, Hacketstown, Kiltennel and Borris. Due to political and legal
difficulties the relief schemes could not be implemented immediately.
The aid schemes plan had to be first submitted to the Lord Lieutenant who
then sought the opinion of the Relief Commission and also sought advice from
the Board of Works (themselves subject to advice from a supervisory
system) on the advisability of proceeding with the aid. Reports from those
bodies were then forwarded to the Treasury in London and the approval of the
treasury agents were required before any aid could be released. On occasion
a proposal might be returned for clarification on a point.
Many complaints were lodged by the landowners and the clergy against this
delay, and many of the landlords made strong representations to the
government to get things moving. In the meantime subscriptions were
collected among the landlords and the clergy " to aid in every possible way
those who needed assistance". In May, a large crowd gathered at Alexander's
Mills outside Carlow and refused to disperse until they were promised that
the gentry of Carlow would come to their aid. Finally in June 1846 "public
work schemes" got underway.
Aid would be distributed to committees formed for each electoral division.
These committees were to make estimates of their required budget for two
weeks in advance and this budget had then to be sanctioned by the finance
section of each poor law union. On obtaining this approval, the budget was
advanced to the treasurer, who, if he was satisfied, would then approve payment
of the budget.
The schemes were building new roads, hill lowering, filling hollows, repair
of roads, building walls, etc. but all was not well in some areas. In
Leighlinbridge a mob of about 200 people tore up the newly laid road because
they thought " the schemes inadequate to employ all the destitute
The system was intent on making it difficult and undesirable to the
destitute to apply for aid in order to encourage them to support themselves.
Believe it or not but this operation was successful in alleviating distress
in many areas.
People who were deemed sick or unable to work could get support from the
Committees. The committees also issued cooked food according to a plan
devised by the Society of Friends (Quakers). Only those able to work could
seek admission to the workhouse, otherwise imprisonment was a better option!
T.P. O'Neill tells us that: "In practice, if not in theory, the Calvinist
tenet that poverty was a sign of wickedness was accepted by the elite of the
times" - this could explain why the inmates of the jail were better treated
In 1846, Colonel Wandesforde sent out 3,000 people from the Castlecomer area
at a cost of £5 each. Those of farming stock were directed to Canada, those
with mining experience to Pennsylvania. It was also reported that Lord de
Vesci was undertaking extensive removals from the Queen's County (Laois).
Wandesforde and de Vesci were among others who were accused of "brutal
extermination" at the time. Overall the death rate on the "coffin ships" was
extremely high. In 1847 alone over 40,000 died at sea. Another emigration
option was the assisted passage of workhouse orphans of which over 4,000
orphan girls were sent to Australia during 1847-'49. A large number came
from the Carlow, Kildare and Laois workhouses.
The highest number of admissions to the workhouse took place in 1849. It was
at this time that the dreaded cholera swept the whole country. The epidemic
was severe with over 30,000 deaths recorded throughout the country. Laois in
particular suffered badly during this period.
My own great grandfather, Sam Snoddy, a Presbyterian Ulsterman from Ballymena,
County Antrim had come to Carlow working on the railway line and had settled
in Pollerton Road, Carlow town in 1845. On the first day of September 1849,
Sam went to work early in the morning when he returned that night his wife,
Sera, and two children, John and Anne, were dead and their remains already
buried in Knockaunnarelic graveyard on the edge of the town. In their last
hours all three had been baptised and received into the Roman Catholic
Church by Rev. G. Kearns. How much of a say they had in their sudden
"conversion " I can't say, all I know is that when Sam went to work that
morning he left behind a wife with two children all of the Presbyterian
faith and when he returned they were dead and buried and Roman Catholic!
Thirty days later Sam himself converted to the Roman Catholic religion,
thereby going against the norm of the time when others were converting away
from Catholicism to get the "free soup" and other benefits here he was
becoming a Catholic. At the time those families who took the "soup" became
known for generations as "soupers" after the Famine many re-converted back
to being Roman Catholics and in turn they became known as "jumpers", so one
could have the "souper Doyles" or "souper Murphys" and later, after the
famine was over, the "jumper Doyles or "jumper Murphys" I think in the
following generations the "jumpers" were more frowned upon than the
"soupers". I am sure there are many such stories with families throughout
the counties. It is imperative that those accounts should be recorded in
order to enable historians to form a complete picture of the events of this
period. Often the best way to bring home the reality of a disaster is to
hear the personal stories of the people who were affected.
In comparison to many other counties, particularly those along the western
and southern seaboard, we know that Carlow, Kildare and Laois escaped the
worst effects of the calamity. In County Carlow for instance the population
declined by approximately 20,000 in the years between the census of 1841 and
1851 and in fact the population of Carlow town increased during this period.
T.P. O'Neill in his 1947 article for "Carloviana" pointed out that " it must
be remembered that it was disease and fever which caused most of the deaths
during this period rather than direct starvation". I would add that
bungling, incompetent politicians and a distant, uncaring government were
also responsible for the hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths and for
much of the hardship and suffering of the Irish people. This was taught in
the schools and was remembered by the Irish in the century that followed,
which in turn, was to sour the relationship between Ireland and her nearest
neighbour for generations.
Very little is recorded in the folk memory records for the three counties
but there are many sources as yet untapped such as the local landlord
accounts, local newspapers for this period, estate papers, workhouse
records, church registers, the Pat Purcell Papers and various other
collections. The purpose of this article is to stimulate interest and,
hopefully, to encourage others to research this neglected period of our
history. Carlow County Heritage Society would like to learn of any such
research project, perhaps with a view to publishing same.
I wish to thank Cait Kavanagh of Laois County Library, Mary Coughlan of
Kildare County Library, Carmel Flahavan of Carlow County Library and my late
uncle Pat Purcell for preserving so many records of the period.
*Mangan's Famine boiler*
Michael Purcell and Ronnie Strong pictured with Mangan's famine boiler.
"The Cursed Famine" is based on extracts from a paper prepared by
Michael Purcell for a series of talks due to be given in the USA in
the near future. Michael will travel to California, Arizona and Arkansas
as a guest of the Emerald Circle. The theme of the talks will be
"The role of the ascendancy during the Great Famine" and
"The Pat Purcell Papers Archive".
In the year 2002 I presented the Famine Pot, referred to above, to Carlow
County Heritage Society, they have placed it in the Workhouse Burial Plot on
the Green Road, Carlow. It has a stone erected, recording it's history .The
stone was presented by the members of Sister Cities Corp. of Tempe, Arizona
and was unveiled by the late Tom Burns of Todd Drive, Tempe, Arizona in 2002
(c) Michael Purcell